I, like many people, probably went into the ‘Beckham’ documentary expecting to confirm my suspicion that David Beckham was basically a fitfully talented prima dona who barely deserved his celebrity and financial success, mostly getting what he has because of a fluke combination of boy band good looks and one functional kicking leg.

I was wrong. I was horribly wrong.

Likability

First off, he’s likable. I have to remember that what I see has been carefully edited to reflect the biases of the director, but still, he’s just likable. I’d have a beer with him. I’d play a pickup game with David Beckham. Hell, I wouldn’t mind raking the leaves with him.

His vibe, nevertheless squeezed through a camera, is unmistakably easygoing. You don’t sense what you’d expect to – which is to encounter a human being horribly warped by almost three decades of lavish endorsements, media attention, and general parasocial infatuation.

He’s not trying to sound smart. He’s not trying to be anything. If anything, he almost seems apologetic when he reveals some of his quirks – like a manic tendency to organize and clean everything – and open and honest about his essential nature.

There’s a telling scene when Beckham transferred from Manchester United to Real Madrid when he had difficulty adjusting. Thankfully, his fellow Galacticos supported him, Roberto Carlos in particular.

Beckham’s coach once witnessed Roberto Carlos and Beckham lingering after lunch at a table, talking for hours. Why was this remarkable? Beckham didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. Roberto Carlos didn’t speak English. Yet, they understood each other perfectly through hand gestures and other body language.

You also see that even ten years after he retired, he is still friends with most of his old teammates. Clearly, the friendships he developed on the same team weren’t just a matter of necessity or convenience for the sake of football performance but sincere bonds that endure.

What the hell does this have to do with cycling?

Cycling, especially road cycling, has a reputation for producing a toxic, elitist atmosphere that newcomers find so offputting it frequently drives them to quit the sport.

How does a niche sport that so few people care about produce such an exclusionary culture that abhors connection?

I don’t know – there’s probably a PhD thesis there.

What I can say is that if every cyclist that doesn’t wave or refuses to acknowledge someone they consider less than wasn’t a dismissive dickhead, not only would the sport be better, but their life would be better.

Life is about relationships, not how fast you pedal. How many connections do cyclists miss out on because they’re too busy nursing some sort of elitist narcissism with the confused logic that not saying hi to someone else will somehow make them faster or better?

Beckham had every reason to be a pompous shitbag but wasn’t. The result?

A decade after he quit the game, twenty-plus people, many of whom were once enemies, came on and spoke warmly about him. Many of them carry on active friendships with him. That’s worth considering the next time you feel the urge to ignore someone because their threshold isn’t 6w/kg.

I’ve worked with a few kids in my coaching career who had appropriate aspirations of greatness. All of them, without exception, were fixated on the numbers and metrics required to race at the level of their dreams.

That’s fair, but it’s telling that none of them asked, “Hey, how can I be more personable? How can I improve my social skills so people want me to ride for them?”

What few of those kids realized is that, yeah, you need the legs, but lots of kids have the legs, and sometimes the difference between someone that gets on a good team and sustains an upward trajectory just comes down to likability, whether the team director and their potential future teammates like having them around.

Success

When they cover his childhood, you’re not left with the feeling that he stumbled into success but that Beckham, like other child prodigies, is the rare intersection of talent, parenting, and an insane work ethic.

The emphasis here has to be on the insane work ethic. Beckham won the first 92 soccer games he ever played. Whenever he had a spare moment, he’d practice the fundamentals almost to the point of madness: his father would kick the ball high in the air, and he had to trap it against the ground to control it; he’d kick corner after corner until he could put it in the right spot without thinking; he’d show up for practice early and do extra conditioning so he could run full out for 90 minutes.

Yes, he was gifted. Yes, his father drove him mercilessly, but there’s no question that Beckham put in the work and often did so not because anyone forced him to but because it’s what his own standard required.

What the hell does this have to do with cycling?

If you want extreme results, you have to be extreme. 

That doesn’t mean notching a top 10 result at a national level gravel race is only a matter of work ethic – talent and life situation play for sure – but even if you win the genetic and life lottery, you still need to work your ass off – no exceptions.

Maybe it’s easier to clarify this with formulas:

Where people think exceptional results come from: Talent

Where exceptional results come from: Talent + Extreme work ethic + extreme lifestyle.

How do you know if you’re talented? The only way to find out is to start working.

Character Rises

Beckham had a falling out with his coach at Madrid over transfer controversy. Upon hearing that Beckham had been meeting with other teams, he decided to switch to MLS. When his coach heard this, he told him he would never play for Madrid again.

Beckham had a few months left on his contract, though. Instead of ditching town early, as would have been within his rights, he stayed and showed up to practice, even though the coach forbade him to train with the team. 

So, comically, Beckham trained not with his team but around his team. He did this for weeks until his teammates begged their coach to let him train with the rest of the team. 

The president of Real Madrid got word of this and told the coach to consider letting Beckham play. The coach finally relented, and Beckham proved instrumental in Real Madrid’s final regular season games. They ended up winning the league title on the last day in part due to Beckham’s contribution. 

What the hell does this have to do with cycling?

Beckham could have easily punched the ‘fuck it’ button and left Madrid early, but such was his commitment not just to his contract, but to his teammates that he stayed and kept working even though his own coach didn’t want him there.

And yet, once he demonstrated that he wasn’t above fulfilling his commitments because it suited him or abandoning his teammates, he not only got to practice with the team, he got to play and, in many ways, provided Real the final push they needed to secure the league title.

At this point in his career, Beckham was so famous that a newspaper famously sent reporters to try to find someone who didn’t know him, and only succeeded after a lot of desperate searching to find a shepherd in Chad who hadn’t heard of him.

And yet, despite his fame and wealth, he wasn’t above showing up and working, even if he didn’t have to.

Because of the cutthroat nature of cycling, you encounter lots of arrogance. You’ll run into some people who had one or two results in a lowly 2.0 race level and then walk around small towns along the national circuit like they’re royalty. Some locals find these people so offputting that they’re more than willing to can thirty-year-old races because they find the pro ranks so insufferable.

If Beckham can humble himself, a star brighter than the combined fame of every cyclist who ever lived, we cyclists can.

Compartmentalization

In the 1998 World Cup round of 16, Beckham gave in to momentary madness and retaliated after a cheap shot in full view of the referee. He got a red card for it, reducing England to 10 men early in the competition, and England would go out on penalties.

When Beckham returned to England, he was an instant pariah.

When the English Premier League started back up, in every stadium he went into, thousands of famous cheered every error he made, chanted obscenities, and booed incessantly. He could not walk down the street publicly without being spat on, cursed, or barged into. He received hundreds of death threats, and a bar even put up an effigy of him hanging from a noose.

While some animosity may have been expected, this went on for months.

And yet, Beckham pushed through it. With the help of his teammates, coach, and family, he turned the vitriol of the mob into fuel, kept on showing up, and kept on performing, permanently finding retribution in a crucial World Cup qualifier against Greece where England needed a draw to qualify for the world cup and trailed by one goal the entire game until the last minute when Beckham won a free kick and scored from 20 yards out, securing England’s passage.

What the hell does this have to do with cycling?

The parallels here are obvious – no matter how grievous the setback, no matter how much hate you have to endure, if you keep showing up and performing, eventually, you will get through it.

I have no idea how Beckham got through it, though. Even though he admitted he doesn’t know, he still has regrets about how his mistake affected everyone in his life.

But as I type this, I think I know how – it was his family, friends, coach, and unfathomable personal resilience that got him through it.

Maybe what’s worth remembering in this compartmentalization point isn’t that you can get through anything no matter how deep the hell, but that your ability to do so depends on the people in your life.

By extension, then, you shouldn’t just start saying hi to people because you want to foster a more welcoming, warm atmosphere in cycling but because you actually really need people when things get hard.

Realities of Aging

Towards the end, Beckham said something striking:

“Football is all I ever wanted to do. I loved the game, and I would have kept playing until my legs fell off.”

At 37, Beckham joined Paris Saint Germain, a French club, and helped them to their first league championship in over twenty years. While an important contributor, he noticed something acutely for the first time – age.

He wasn’t recovering as quickly as he used to. Instead of being ready for more the next day, he’d be floored for days and often had to roll out of bed because he was so banged up from the physical demands of top-level football.

He didn’t want to quit football – it’s all he’d ever done, all he’d ever wanted to do, but it was clear, physically, that he couldn’t do it anymore, his body unwilling, finally, to listen to his mind.

In his last game, as the final whistle approached, he choked up involuntarily, unable to control his emotions as he walked off the field for the last time to the roaring adulation of the crowd.

What the hell does this have to do with cycling?

I’ve harped on this before, but when you sit down every year and map out your cycling goals, they should be aggressive, and they should scare you – they shouldn’t be cheaply attainable.

Why?

Because you don’t have as much time as you think, even if we assume that you’ll always have the time to train, good health, and sufficient finances, which you won’t, the clock will eventually run out.

And don’t mistake me – I don’t even mean death. I mean the time that you have to truly compete, reasonably recover, and generally enjoy the challenge of training and racing.

All your years aren’t going to be equal. The level you can achieve at 25 differs from 35 years old, which isn’t the same as 45 years old, and never mind 65 years old.

That’s the thing – many of us carry around this unexamined conceit that we age linearly when the evidence would suggest gentle declines in physical potential from your early thirties onward into a series of brutal physical drops that resemble class four rapids once you get into your forties and beyond.

When you can push yourself, you should, because, like Beckham, someday you may want to but find that the body you assumed would always be there for you, isn’t.

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